Bahrain has stripped a leading Shiite cleric of his nationality after accusing him of attempting to divide society. The move has brought hundreds of protesters into the streets.
Bahrain's Interior Ministry said Ayatollah Isa Qassim had been using his influence to promote sectarianism and violence in the island nation, according to state media reports.
"Based on that, the Bahraini citizenship had been dropped from Isa Ahmed Qassim, who … had sought to form organizations that follow foreign religious and political reference," state news agency BNA said.
The move against the 79-year-old sheikh, who is considered the spiritual leader of the kingdom's Shiite Muslim majority, comes a week after the suspension of Bahrain's main Shiite opposition group, Al-Wefaq.
After the decision was announced, there were reports of hundreds of supporters amassing outside the ayatollah's house in the Shiite village of Diraz. Video footage showed angry protesters carrying posters and chanting Shiite slogans.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, a London-based advocacy organization, warned that the government's actions could stoke unrest.
"We are deeply concerned that these actions will escalate tensions on the streets and may even lead to violence, as targeting the country's leading Shiite cleric is considered to be a red line for many Bahrainis," the institute's Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei said in a statement.
Dozens stripped of nationality
Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since a 2011 uprising by majority Shiites demanding a greater say in the running of the Sunni-ruled country. The monarchy crushed the protests with help from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, allies who are wary of Iran and keen to limit Shiite influence in the region.
Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, called on the people of Bahrain to express their anger. It said the decision to revoke Qassim's citizenship "pushes the Bahraini people to difficult choices which will have severe consequences."
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's senior council of clerics, which follows an ultraconservative Sunni ideology, welcomed Bahrain's actions.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, said Bahrain has stripped at least 250 people of their citizenship in recent years due to alleged disloyalty.
nm/kl (Reuters, AP, dpa)